Saturday 17 March 2018

Heaslip gets chance to set record straight with Faletau face-off

Toby Faletau tackles Jamie Heaslip during Ireland’s clash against Wales in 2012 Stephen McCarthy
Toby Faletau tackles Jamie Heaslip during Ireland’s clash against Wales in 2012 Stephen McCarthy
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

THE beauty of the build-up to Saturday's clash with Wales is that there is so much more to it than simply some sort of Brian O'Driscoll v Warren Gatland showdown.

Sure, the reaction of the Lansdowne Road crowd to the former Ireland coach will be worth catching, the centre's performance will be closely watched and the debate over last July's decision will rumble on, but to focus entirely on that issue would be to ignore the vast number of other sub-plots at play.

There are those Irish players who never made the plane and will have a point to prove, the likes of Rory Best and Rob Kearney who will feel that they never got a chance to do themselves justice in Australia and then there is the simple fact that familiarity has long bred contempt between the two groups of players who will take the field for the 2.30 showdown.

Then there is the battle between the two very different approaches of the New Zealanders directing the traffic and, of course, there is the curious case of the forgotten Lion, Jamie Heaslip, who will not be short of motivation or points to prove come kick-off.


Amid the furore over the exclusion of one former Ireland captain, the incumbent skipper was forgotten last summer.

After five straight Test appearances in a red jersey, the Naas man was deemed surplus to requirements for the decider and, like O'Driscoll, watched a standout career highlight from the stand, dressed in a suit and tie.

He goes down a Test series-winning Lion, but it took some cajoling from the tourists' chief executive John Feehan to convince him that he was part of it.

The feeling of being dropped "sucked" he has since said and he responded to the call by Gatland – who he has known since childhood – by going off tour with a few mates.

Heaslip is famously at pains to stress his ability to switch off from rugby, but behind the image is the man who sets the professional standards for his fellow squad members, a player who is never injured – thanks, in part to high levels of testosterone as he revealed over the weekend – and is always the first name on the team-sheet for Leinster and Ireland.

Being dropped hurt.

"Some people use that stuff for motivation," he told Newstalk last month. "It can eat you up, for me personally, I'm not holding any grudges.

"I would argue, did the change make a massive change on the game for Brian and myself? But at the end of the day you can't do anything. It happened, you just get on with it.

"At the time, I remember walking around the field and going, 'I really don't feel part of it'. People said you go against the ethos, but as a competitor you want to be out there. You're part of the squad, but you want to be on the pitch. I didn't feel part of it."

On Saturday, he goes up against the man who wore the No 8 jersey with distinction in that final Test, Toby Faletau.

Heaslip says he won't be motivated by the events of the summer and claims he doesn't care how he plays as long as the team wins, but the presence of such a worthy adversary will surely focus his mind.

The Irish No 8 got the nod for two of the three games last summer, but his Tongan-born rival has held the edge in the three games in which they have met and his influence has grown steadily with his 60 metres of carries in last year's defeat in Cardiff a major part of Wales' recovery which ultimately came up short in the only defeat he has suffered.

That he has always either matched or bettered the older Irish player for metres gained is helped by the fact that Heaslip takes a supporting role when Sean O'Brien is around, but it was noticeable on Sunday that it was the 30-year-old's growing influence which helped turn the game in Ireland's favour after half-time

Although he almost scored a try when running a clever support line for Johnny Sexton's break, the stand-in captain wasn't as involved as he would have liked before the break, but in the third quarter he was omnipresent, carrying strongly and hitting rucks.

He may have to share his try with Rory Best, but his technique in ripping the ball from Dan Tuohy and setting the maul for the pivotal score was text-book.

In O'Brien's absence, the No 8 touched the ball more often than any other Irish forward and the 66 metres he made with ball in hand was almost as much as the rest of the starting pack combined who managed 74 metres.

Peter O'Mahony and Chris Henry hit plenty of defensive rucks and turned over ball, it was the skipper's job to carry and clean.

Faletau, meanwhile, was subdued in Wales' uninspiring win over Italy at the Millennium Stadium, but there was a definite sense that both teams had one eye on Saturday – the big one.

Speaking in the aftermath of that game, Wales fly-half Rhys Priestland – unprompted – brought up the O'Driscoll fallout and the impact it might have on Ireland's motivation this week.

Joe Schmidt will be looking to alleviate any distractions as preparations get under way in Maynooth this morning, but there is no doubt that the Lions provides the backdrop for the build-up.

A subscriber to IRFU sports psychologist Enda McNulty's philosophy of forward thinking, the vice-captain won't be one to dwell on the past, but his professional pride will demand a performance.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport